A Rose By Any Other Name…Friend

23 03 2017

“I force people to have coffee with me, just because I don’t trust that a friendship can be maintained without any other senses besides a computer or cellphone screen.” – John Cusack

Snapshot: Saturday afternoon, East Village, Des Moines, Iowa. My friends, Layne and Kristen are ahead of me on the sidewalk, my friend Tammy is walking beside me. I can see the state capitol behind the two leading our small pack, so I call out and ask them to stop so I can take their picture. Layne says, “It feels like we’re out shopping with our moms.” We all laugh, but I still take the photo.

We were in Des Moines visiting Layne. A few weeks ago, we were reminiscing about our friendships on social media, and I thrust this weekend gathering upon her – “Let’s all meet at Layne’s”, and she gracefully accepted the challenge of houseguests despite her busy life as a working mom whose job requires regular travel.

In these first few hours of our reunion, the pace was a bit frenetic. I can’t speak for anyone else, but to me it felt like we were meant to be jubilant in our togetherness, yet hadn’t quite shifted back into in-real-life mode, as opposed to texting and direct-messaging mode. No one said, “OMG!” or “LOL!”, though it would not, perhaps, have felt out of place.

It didn’t take long for a shift to happen. In one store, Layne said, “Let’s go home and hang out with Oliver” (her adorable toddler son) and that was all it took. The honest longing in her voice to be at home, and our willingness to move past the triteness of the “girl’s weekend” cliche of being out on the town (not that we weren’t planning an evening involving much wine and “Cards Against Humanity”, also a girl’s weekend cliche) were all it required.

Here is what wasn’t cliche about our weekend gathering: The five of us (sadly missing our fifth wheel, Tricia, who could only be with us in spirit due to family obligations) are unlikely friends. We span four decades of life – with at least one of us in each decade from their 20s through their 50s. We have a variety of academic degrees and divergent interests. Some have families, others do not. We met in our workplace, where I hired and supervised all but one of the others. Often, this alone would prevent my inclusion in the group – people may love their boss as a boss, but it is somewhat less likely that they will become the kind of friends who crash at each others’ homes.

The two youngest, whom I hired as Hall Directors right out of college, have a light in them that shines warmly. Like other millennials, they grew up reinforced and supported for their uniqueness. While many people my age lament what they see as the problematic aspects of this generation, I celebrate their positive qualities. I wish that women in my generation had been taught to stand up for ourselves, to believe in our competence, to allow our unique qualities and quirks to be more than fodder for bullying or self-shame. Since the day we met, and for the rest of our lives, I will do everything in my power to help these two hold on to that shine – despite the ways our world may work to dim it.

The middle two are literally two of the most supportive and loving women I know. Empathic and honest, they don’t shy away from those difficult places that friends sometimes to fear to go with each other. And they love to shake things up a bit, to belly laugh, to be occasionally outrageous.

For the five of us, it was a soul-satisfying adventure to work together. It remains an adventure as we maintain our connectedness while living in different cities.

One of the most surprising things in my life has been the richness of relationships: rich in variety, depth and nuance. Because of this richness, I have often been disappointed in the dearth of words to describe our relationships. We have concrete words for family connections (though everyone of us experiences the actualities differently), a few words for romantic relationships, and some for friendship. Many of these words are used so broadly, as placeholders for suck a multitude of variations, they end up lacking degree or depth.

This is why, I suspect, my younger nieces and their age-cohort tend to call whichever friend they are with at the moment “my best friend” in the comments on their Instagrams or Snapchats. It is also why, in graduate school, my friend, Cathann, and I began calling each other “comrade” – not because we shared a political affiliation, but because we felt words like “pal”, “buddy”, “friend” didn’t capture the intellectual quality of our emotional connection with one another.

What is the word for “my friend whom I love like my child except that I also get to be my totally flawed self with unlike a mother gets to be”, I wonder? Or the one for “this woman is exactly the person I want to be except that I get to keep my own stuff, just take on some of her loveliness while also experiencing it in her”? What do I call “my not-brother who makes me feel loved and protected and respected as a woman even when I swear like a longshoreman when we’re together?” The best word I can find for each of these friend.

I am grateful for the multiplying ways we are able to remain in contact with the people who offer this rich texture to our lives. But one thing the weekend in Des Moines reminded me of is that there is no substitute for time spent in physical proximity to the people we love. To see the shifting facial expressions, hear the laughter and the vocal expressions of emotion, to feel the hugs and occasional slugs on the shoulder – the sensory experience of relationship is so vitally important. And it is for this reason that, like John Cusack says, I will continue to force people to have coffee with me – or foist my company upon a distant friend. I am so deeply grateful for each and every buddy, pal, comrade, colleague, co-conspiritor in my life…for each and every friend.

“Wherever it is you may be, it is your friends who make your world.” – Chris Bradford

 

 

 

 





The Rainbow Cow

19 05 2016

“The rainbow you see is different than the rainbow visible to all other observers, because an entirely different set of drops refracts and reflects the light in alignment for each observer’s eyes. The falling drops are only in position to perform this function for that very moment when they pass through that single ray of light. They continue to fall away, and other drops pass in place to refract and reflect light again. Falling rain suspends the rainbow in the sky for the short time that the relationship of sun, rain, and observer are aligned for the transformation to happen and thus for this creative phenomenon to exist.  –Kyna Leski The Storm of Creativity

There are days when the whole world feels gray and close. Days when there seems to be precious little breathing space, and sunshine feels like a distant memory (even if it shone only yesterday). It was on one such day that, discouraged and disheartened, I stopped by a friend’s house for a glass of wine and a little companionship. When I arrived, sitting on the island in her kitchen was a coloring book page which had been carefully removed from the book. The pre-printed picture was the outline of a happy cow standing in a flower-strewn meadow. The cow had been colored, painstakingly, with thin-line markers in a rainbow pattern (heavy on green and orange sections).

As my friend poured me a generous helping of cabernet, I picked up the colored page and said, “Wow! Someone has been busy!”

At that moment, my friend’s five-year-old daughter Kate walked into the room, intent on some mission of her own. As she passed me she said, “I drew that for you,” and continued through the room and out the door on the other side.

“Thank you, peanut,” I called to her retreating back.

The rainbow cow picture now hangs on my refrigerator, and I thought of it immediately as I read the passage (quoted above) from Kyna Leski’s book on creativity. First, it struck me that every rainbow exists as a function of a particular observer being in that particular place at that particular moment. Leski asserts that this means every rainbow we observe is different from the same rainbow seen by someone else. I had thought that Kate’s rainbow cow was a little strange because of the preponderance of green and orange, but now I wonder if it might not be a reflection of Kate’s observational experience. Or it may be that, in translating her experience through her own artistic vision, a rainbow come alive in cowhide would naturally seem to be shaded in such a way. In any case, the one thing I am certain of is that only Kate would have produced this particular rainbow cow. We all know what rainbows look like, yet every one of us would express that collective understanding differently, due to our own alignment.

As I thought more about the passage from Leski’s book, I cast my mind back to the night Kate gave me the cow drawing. I remember sipping my wine and chatting about the day. Kate and her little sister, Anne, periodically interrupted the adult conversation with giggles or tears; there were hugs and tickles. Within me a change took place: I began to view the gray, sunless day through new eyes. From this new perspective, the hours appeared less uniform in their gray-ness. There had been bright spots and hopeful signs, which I had missed or dismissed before. I realized that a shift in perspective could completely change my view, and in turn could completely shift my experience. More importantly, I saw that such a shift was entirely within my own power. Take a step in any direction (including a mental step or shift) and it is possible to have a clearer, brighter, or simply different, view of things.

Leski goes on to say “the relationship of sun, rain, and observer are aligned for the transformation to happen”. In the margins of my book I wrote, “relationship makes transformation possible”. Certainly, on the night I received Kate’s rainbow cow drawing, relationship offered me that possibility – the opportunity to create a new mind-set as I looked at my day from a different angle. Being with people I loved, held in their positive regard and hospitality, I was able to feel myself renewed and the day/my world view transformed toward the positive. How many times in my life has it been true that relationship has made transformation possible? There are countless examples, from small ones (transforming a momentary mood from gray to sunny) to significant and memorable ones (transforming an unengaged life into a vibrantly engaged one).

In light of these ruminations, glancing at my refrigerator has become an opportunity to check in with myself. First, I remember that I am loved – and usually even the grayest of clouds lightens with that thought. Second, Kate’s rainbow cow reminds me that, not only is my vision of the world unique to me, but it is within my power to shift that unique vision when it isn’t serving me well. Third, it reminds me that relationship (with earth, others, Creator) makes transformation possible. This last may be most important of all if it serves as an impetus to allow my energies to flow both outward and inward. That exchange of energy is where transformation becomes possible. That exchange of energy is how rainbows, and rainbow cows, are made.





Turning Our Scars to Beauty Marks

14 04 2016

We have no scar to show for happiness. — Chuck Palahniuk, Diary

When I left the house with my ice skates, Mom told me not to stay out too long in the sub-zero temperatures. It was cold enough that my face felt like it might crack into a million pieces every time I smiled. But I was ten and my friends were skating so I skated. It was too cold for leisurely touring around the rink, practicing my backwards skating or making imitation figure-skating moves. No one had brought their sticks, so hockey was out. Which left speed races or whiplash – the two options that would keep us all moving briskly enough to stay reasonably warm in the bitter cold.

If you’ve never played whiplash on ice, you’ve missed out on a truly exhilarating, yet terrifying, experience. Everyone forms a line, holding hands with the people in front of and behind them. The “leader” skates around in whatever erratic manner s/he prefers, while those in the line behind attempt to follow suit. Invariably, the pace picks up, and the whole line is suddenly skating faster and faster. Those toward the end of the line begin to be whipped around at astonishing speeds. Their task is to hold on for dear life! When, inevitably, they drop hands or fall, everyone shouts “Whiplash!”. The game stops while the line re-forms, with the last person moving to the front of the line and becoming the leader.

It wasn’t much fun to be the leader. Even if you tried to be creative, there was really only one point to the game: get the whole line moving fast enough that those at the back would be whipped around significantly enough to lose their balance or drop hands. The fun, as every kid would immediately guess, was had at the back of the line.

Anyway, on that particular afternoon, it was finally my turn to be at the end of the line. I usually managed to keep my feet in the game, but that afternoon was epic. Our Whiplashes were phenomenal! We kept congratulating one another on the way we were whipping each other around on the rink. I took my place at the end of the line with great anticipation. We picked up speed, going faster and faster. Then, just as I began to be propelled at high speed, I hit a divot in the ice and my left skate stopped dead. I fell, launching forward like a projectile, my arms out in front of me. I heard it was breathtaking, the way I flew threw the air stretched out like a parka-clad superhero. I landed in a belly-flop on the ice, which didn’t hurt so much as it left me unable to catch a breath. What did hurt was my right wrist, which landed immediately in front of someone else’s moving skate. Their jagged toe-pick immediately sliced into my wrist, and a pile-up of memorable proportions ensued. Eventually, those on top of the pile of bodies were able to regain their feet, and those of us at the bottom began testing our limbs to make certain nothing was broken. There was a jagged gash in my wrist, which the others gathered around to gawk at. Finally, my cold-addled brain registered the pain signals being sent to it, and I quickly headed home so I wouldn’t embarrass myself by wailing in front of the whole neighborhood.

I remember every detail of that afternoon, although it took place decades ago. (I admit I may have embellished the story a bit over the years.) Every time I notice the tiny white scar on my wrist, it all comes back to me. I don’t notice it that often, but frequently enough to keep ahold of those details.

And that’s how it is with scars. They serve as life-long reminders of the events that caused them. We don’t forget. This is true with emotional scars, as well as the physical ones. We seem always able to touch the scarring event or experience with an immediacy that can take us right to that moment, directly to that emotion. Sometimes, we wear the scar like a badge of honor, the way I wear that tiny white patch on my wrist – a sign of my own badassery or resilience. Sometimes, the scar serves as a warning system, reminding us of the pain that can happen if we don’t protect ourselves. We wear our negative and painful experiences on the surface of our bodies and our psyches, keeping those feelings and experiences – for good or ill – always accessible.

Unfortunately, the same is not also true of happy feelings and experiences. They do not imprint themselves on our surfaces, with similar easy access to memory or the same immediacy of emotion that scars produce. This can lead us to a lopsided recollection of our lives – we readily see the times that scarred us, but have to work harder to recall the times of happiness or positive growth with the same detail.

I think this was the impetus that led me to get a tattoo a few years ago. I wanted a visual reminder of my own growth and the positive changes I was enacting in my life. It was the thought behind the social media campaign “To write love on her arms”. In some ways, it may be the impetus behind our need to document everything in our lives these days with cell phone photos, snapchats, instagrams and selfies. See? we seem to be saying. There was beauty today. Or laughter. Or one shining moment that deserves to be remembered.

Earlier this week, my dear friend Amy passed away unexpectedly. She was too young; her death is a shock to all who knew and loved her. First, there were the tears and expressions of disbelief. And while the pain of loss and grief is still fresh, I’ve been watching the steady stream of photos and memories being shared on social media. As friends and family have stopped to remember, it is the happy moments they are bringing forward and sharing: Amy’s beautiful and irrepressible smile, her positive energy, her kindness. I can’t count how many times in the past few days I’ve said to myself, “Ah, I had forgotten!”

Not only that, but many of us have reconnected over our shared grief and our happy memories. It is so easy to forget, in the busyness of life, the people we’ve loved with and laughed with, the moments and experiences that have fed our souls, the happinesses that enhance our lives – they do so without leaving scars behind to keep them available to us, to remind us to touch them with the same care (and reverence) with which we touch our scarred places.

Was that cold afternoon on an ice rink in Hastings Minnesota really a defining moment in my life? No. What did I learn? I learned that there’s a down-side to being the last person in a Whiplash! line. I learned that injuries in bitter cold don’t bleed as profusely as they do once they warm up. Conversely, were the many happy and laughter-filled moments with Amy defining experiences? I believe they were – I was reminded to take myself less seriously; I discovered that it is possible to work to physical exhaustion and still be enjoying the moment; I learned the fine art of the inside joke from a master. And I learned that happiness is something we have to work for, to take risks for – Amy taught me that through the example of her life, not because she died.

If happiness leaves a scar, it is only when we realize we’ve not attended to it as fully as we ought to have. Perhaps that is just the way it is. But what if we practiced holding happiness at our surfaces, the way we hold our painful scars? What if we looked for ways to write/imprint love and joy on our bodies and our psyches so that we have inadvertent and regular reminders to attend to them? We could call them beauty marks and it wouldn’t be a euphemism! What if, every time we saw or felt a scar or scarring memory, we taught ourselves to also recall a happiness or positive growth moment? Would this help to correct our lopsided vision of ourselves, our capacities, our realities? All I know is that I’d like it to. And that most of us could stand a little self-correction toward a more positive vision of ourselves, our experiences, our lives.  Here’s wishing us all plentiful beauty marks!

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Not Finite

3 03 2016

How will you know the difficulties of being human, if you are always flying off to blue perfection? Where will you plant your grief seeds? Workers need ground to scrape and hoe, not the sky of unspecified desire. –Rumi

When we were in graduate school, my friend Cathann mentioned something in conversation that I’ll never forget – we don’t have a finite amount of love; therefore, giving love to one person does not mean we have less to give another. There is always more available.

I’ve not forgotten these words, though sometimes their truth sneaks up on me. It sneaks up on me when I’m not looking for new friends but they appear anyway. It catches me by surprise when I’ve been avoiding connecting with loved ones because “I’m too busy” but we somehow connect anyway – and I find that lightens, rather than adds to, my burdens. Unfortunately, this truth also catches up with me in moments of sadness and regret, when I realize I felt love that remained unexpressed.

I don’t know how anyone else experiences this, but for me, once I’ve loved someone I apparently carry love for that person inside – even if it is buried in the debris of broken promises or hurt feelings. Even if it was a love that I experienced in my childhood but has been left at the bottom of my heart, like a favorite teddy bear forgotten in a box in the attic. I suspect this is true for most of us, if the heartwarming stories we hear of people who have reconnected with past friends, lovers and lost family members are to be believed.

All that love just being hoarded somewhere in the over-stuffed storage-units of our hearts.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. A few weeks ago, I happened to see a comment on a Facebook feed, placed there by my ninth grade boyfriend. Now, I haven’t been connected with this man in so many years, I literally gave up trying to count them. Seeing his name, I felt a small rush of warmth and a sudden desire to reach out to him. I didn’t, though. (Honest admission: I did do a small amount of cyber-stalking, but it was just a few clicks on some internet links.) It left me wondering what stopped me – not from rekindling a relationship of some kind, but from simply saying, “Hello! I still think fondly of you from time to time.” The answer that comes back to me, in my most truthful moments, is that I didn’t want to be burdened with any messy-ness (what if he’s weird? what if he’s dangerous? what if he’s awesome and I don’t have time for another long-distance friend?) that could conceivably come from connecting.

And this week, I’ve been grieving the sudden death of my cousin, Tom, whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. We spent a lot of time together as kids – he was a few years older than me and, exotically, lived on a farm. Tom was always kind and gentle and protective of me, even when he was teasing me for my “city” ways, or calling me Angie Palucci* – a nickname I hated from everyone else but didn’t mind from him. He’s the one who told me the truth about Santa Claus, because I was upset that the other kids were calling me a baby when their nudge-nudge-wink-wink comments went over my head. Tom’s the one whose crooked smile started with a downturning of the mouth before it lit up his face. Now that he’s gone, I feel the space he has been holding in my heart.

I’ve been regretting that I didn’t make an effort to stay in touch.  Wondering why I never took the turn toward the farm when I drove past on the nearby highway – I know I thought about it every time. I suspect it goes back to that idea of somehow being “burdened” – by people and their inevitable imperfections and needs? by love and its inevitable imperfections and needs?

Or is it the fear of finite inner resources? Fear of my own inevitable imperfections and needs?

I’ve said this before (and it won’t surprise anyone, especially those who know me), but I am a slow learner; I am someone who needs to relearn the same concepts over and over before they stick. Just thinking about that teddy bear in the attic is enough to remind me that I still feel love for it. All this time, I thought I was putting it away in order to make room to love something else, when what I was really doing was protecting myself. I didn’t want to see myself reflected in his button eyes as the limited, flawed person I am.

The reality, the truth I keep losing track of is this: My perfection is finite, love’s is not. There might not be room enough in my daily life to be connected to everyone in a perfect and non-needy way. In fact, I’m sure there isn’t – I will sometimes be the cause of hurt, sometimes let people down, sometimes be so focused on my own needs that I run right over you/your needs. But that’s about my human limitations, and not about love.

The sneaky truth, the one I keep losing sight of, is that love isn’t about me, created by me, or controlled by me; it has it’s own perfection that doesn’t flow from me. Unlike my time, my patience, and my impulse toward altruism, love is NOT finite – there is always more available.

Love itself describes its own perfection.
Be speechless and listen.

~ Rumi.

*(the name of a character on the Doris Day show that played in after-school reruns at the time)

 

 





Learning factions

10 09 2015

The school year has had a rolling start this month; some students began classes weeks ago and others just started today. My friend’s daughter, Abby, started seventh grade a couple of weeks ago. After school on the second or third day, my friend noticed that Abby was pensive, maybe a little down, and asked if something was bothering her. In a voice tinged with desperation, Abby responded, “Mom, I don’t have a faction!”

When my friend repeated the story to me later, I was grateful I’d read the Y.A. bestseller, “Divergent”, so I was able to immediately grasp the problem. (The story of “Divergent” takes place in a futuristic society divided into five factions. As teens approach adulthood, each chooses the faction with which he or she feels most aligned. The heroine, Tris, discovers that she is divergent – meaning she has no true faction.) In Divergent, Tris feels like an outsider, never quite fitting in. My young friend, Abby, feels the same.

Believe me, I can totally identify with Abby. As a freshman in high school, I remember feeling factionless. I had a few friends, but they were from several different social groups and tended to identify most strongly with those groups, of which I was not a member. Many Friday nights I attended football games with a group of girls I never really saw, otherwise. The people I ate lunch with at school weren’t the same people I had sleepovers with on the weekends. Most of the time, this was fine. But whenever numbers were an issue, I was the odd man out – I got cut from the roster. Which left me high and dry, feeling “out” at those exact times when a freshman really needs to feel “in”.

The summer between my first and second years of high school, my siblings and I joined an inter church youth group (ICY). On a hot Tuesday night in July, we met about thirty other high school kids and four college-aged leaders at the Lutheran church. For an hour or so, we played some kick-ass volleyball on the church lawn. The game was relaxed, inclusive, fun. There was no cutthroat competition – though there was plenty of humorous braggadocio. After the game, we adjourned inside the church. In the sanctuary, everyone pulled up a piece of floor and the guitars came out. We sang a few songs, said some prayers, then began a style of interaction based on what our leaders called “Serendipity”. With our eyes closed, we mingled in the group until the leader told us to join hands with another person, eyes still closed. My partner was Dave*, one of the college guys leading the group. Each of us was given a paper plate and a crayon, and asked to make a nameplate for our partner. In addition to our partners’ names, we needed to answer four questions about the other person – putting an answer in each “corner” of the round plate. I don’t remember all of the questions, but I’ve never forgotten that, in the upper left-hand corner we were supposed to answer the question, “If your partner were a color, what color would they be?” Dave, making a nameplate for me, wrote “yellow”. I was shocked…and delighted. I’d been expecting gray, black, brown – no one had ever described me as yellow before! The whole evening was fun, but more important, I felt welcomed and included in a way that was so outside the norm of my usual, angst-y, teen interactions.

On the way home, I basked in the glow of every positive thing that had happened that evening. Later, when I went to bed, I lay there replaying it all in my head. And as the bright energy faded, giving way to sleep, I knew one thing: I had, indeed, found my faction.

From that point on, my high school experience was different. I had my ICY peeps in my corner, and I was loving life. Retreats, hay rides, late night guitars and bonfires. We met on Tuesday nights and Thursday mornings before school, cementing our connectedness with intentional yet fun activities. Interestingly, even engaged with my faction, I managed to maintain a few friendships outside the group. We liked each other for the sake of our shared interests and our individual personality quirks, without the need to be joined at the hip with one another – that’s what our factions were for! As far as I was concerned, it was the best of both worlds. I didn’t give much thought to the times that friends told me I was the only one in my group who would talk to them, or who was nice to them. I chalked it up to simple misunderstanding.

Junior year flew, full of adventures – from blowing up my chemistry lab to searching for the ever-elusive albino farm in the neighboring township to having my first jamocha shake at Arby’s. Then life happened and mucked things up.

The summer preceding my senior year, my family moved from Ohio to Iowa. I was devastated. At my new school, the senior class alone outnumbered the entire population of my previous high school. Back to being factionless, I had no clue where to sit, who to talk to, or how to address the rising panic I felt walking into the absolutely packed cafeteria. I had no one.

But here’s the interesting thing. Watching the other kids with their groups, I realized some important truths about factions. These are the things I want to say now to Abby, my young friend feeling so “out there” without her own crew.

First, factions always think they’re open to others, but they rarely are. For example, most of the students at my new school were decent people. Very few were actively cruel or hurtful. But most of them were also not actively kind. Or welcoming. Suddenly, I remembered my “outsider” friends commenting on the exclusionary vibe they got from my ICY friends. At my new school, the kids who were generous and open? The outsiders, like me.

I learned that having a faction can make you less compassionate – because compassion requires a reaching out beyond yourself, beyond your normal circles. When you have a faction, you don’t have to think about what it feels like to eat alone in a crowded lunchroom filled to bursting with other kids having fun – you’re too busy laughing for it to cross your mind. You don’t have to “reframe” to make yourself feel good about another Friday night at home with your parents when you’d rather be with friends…if you had any. Since you don’t have to do these things, you forget there are other kids who do. You literally forget to have compassion for them.

Another truth people don’t really explain ahead of time? Factions maintain their strength by a certain level of uniformity. Gryffindor is brave, Hufflepuff is loyal. ICY loved Jesus, volleyball and guitar sing-alongs. When you have a faction, you get lazy about needing to maintain effort to develop and keep friendships. The group all shows up and, voila! Shared experiences and assumed similarities of thought and emotion. Group membership becomes a shortcut to friendship – but like a lot of shortcuts, its doesn’t lead where you expect it to. Sometimes, you end up spending time with people you don’t really connect with. Or worse, you find yourself looking past behaviors you don’t endorse,  out of loyalty to the group – even when this makes you uncomfortable.

It also surprised me to learn, after moving, that the strength of my faction didn’t make me strong. When I moved to a new city, I had to find strength within myself, not in the group. (Although it did help to know, when I felt alone, that there were people somewhere who loved me.) Interestingly, what helped me move ahead were the friendships I had maintained outside my faction. I still knew how to be friends with a diverse set of individuals who weren’t friends with one another. I remembered that sometimes what was truest and most valuable about someone was protected, and had to be coaxed out with regard and attention. I remembered that there were no shortcuts to developing relationships. True friendship takes time, effort, patience.

In life, I want to tell my dear Abby, you will find yourself part of many groups. They’ll come together in a variety of ways, around a plethora of shared experiences – and they will often bring you joy. As an adult, I’ve discovered that the best kinds of “factions” are created by the synergy that develops when individually strong friendships coalesce together into groups that embrace rather than try to usurp those connections. Because it is the individual relationships you nurture and develop over time that will fill out the depth and quality of your life.

Dearest Abby, I would say. Maintain your openness to people who engage your compassion; to those who invite and invoke your individuality in return. Try not to leave your integrity at the threshold of your latest faction, no matter how tempting it is to gloss over troubling choices made by others or within in your group.

And whatever you do, lovely Abby, never discount the real gift of a lone friend in favor of the dream of belonging to a “faction”. Group hugs are never as satisfying as the embrace of one dearly loved friend.

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*Note: I thought you might be interested to know that my partner, Dave, from my first ICY youth group experience, is none other than my beloved brother-in-law Dave Finnegan. 39 years later still in my life but now in the faction known as “family”!

Some day I may write a post specifically about the spiritual and religious formation I experienced through my involvement with ICY, but for the purposes of this post, it serves mostly as context for the joyful experience of finding my “posse”.





Knitting Spoons?

17 04 2014

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” – Brene Brown

I want to share a story about something that happened at my knitting group last night. But first, you should know one thing about knitting group: I don’t knit.

You might think that fact would somehow preclude me joining such a group. And in other circumstances, you would probably be right. But I was invited to join the group late last fall, at a time when I was hungry for human contact – and I was grateful that these very nice ladies were willing to include me. I immediately discovered that, although the group is self-described as a knitting group because knitting is something most members do (and it’s easily done in a social setting in a coffee shop), most of the women who attend also love beads and beadwork – a serendipitous connection that allowed me to feel less self-conscious about my yarn-free lifestyle. My second discovery was that no one really cares what I bring to work on, in fact, last night I showed up basically empty-handed.

To say no one cares gives the wrong impression. I should say, no one judges. They clearly care, because whatever I have brought has occasioned curiosity and interest. Like most loosely affiliated groups, the attendance at these gatherings ebbs and flows, so in the three or four monthly installments I’ve been able to attend, the faces have varied. I’m not yet entirely sure of everyone’s names, and last night was the first time I met the infamous Anna (who brought a treasure trove of handmade beads for show and tell).

The day had been a busy one for me, and I arrived at knitting group still in the clothes I had worn for a late-afternoon job interview (also why I was sans project). After everyone had caught up and most were beginning to work on the projects they had brought, I started to excuse myself saying I needed to get home to write my blog post for today. One of the women, Anne, asked me what my blog was about. I’m never certain how to answer that question. What is this blog about?! So my friend Kathe, who was my connection to this group, piped up and shared her thoughts then said, “Jen, tell them how your blog got started.”

When I finished sharing what I hope was an abridged version of the hunger challenge/weight loss journey chronicled on Jenion, Anne spoke up again, sharing that she had participated in a hunger-related charity called “Empty Bowls“. For the fundraiser, Anne made a copper-enamelled bowl which raised over $2,000 for the organization. She said, “I was at a friend’s house who does copper-enamelling and she asked what I wanted to do, so I made three items. The first was the bowl, and I’d like you to have whichever of the other two you like.” With that, she handed me two enameled pieces strung on thin leather chords. Both were lovely. I didn’t know what to say – I was so moved by her generous impulse. I removed each necklace from it’s protective plastic bag. As I turned them over in my hands, trying to decide, Anne commented that the larger of the two reminded her of a spoon, which was a fitting connection to both the hunger issue and the Empty Bowls fundraiser. The piece was crafted with a beautiful iridescent enamel, and two holes for findings to connect. The bottom one has a simple piece of leather chord attached, but Anne said, “You can attach whatever you want to the bottom of it.” And next thing I knew, Anna of the wondrous bead display had plopped a glass lamp-worked bead down in front of me, saying, “This one would look perfect!”

And that’s how I left knitting group with a beautiful piece of handmade jewelry that I will always treasure.

There are so many lessons for life contained in this story. The first is about openness – mine AND that of the knitting group. When I told Mike I was invited and planning to participate in knitting group, he asked me in surprise, “Do you even know how to knit?!” I just laughed and shrugged my shoulders – not being a knitter seemed surmountable, whereas remaining lonely and disconnected did not. That the women in the group have been open and accepting of someone who shows up with odd projects unrelated to knitting (or none at all)  is cause for gratitude.

The second lesson I see in this story is one of true connection – which only happens when you are able to get beneath the surface of things. Kathe is a great one for nudging me to share authentically in a variety of ways. She rarely allows me to leave things at an off-hand comment. Had she not encouraged that I share more than a surface-y response to the question about my blog, Anne and I would not have discovered our connection to caring about hunger issues.

The third lesson is about freely sharing our gifts. Kindness and generosity are traits that come naturally to some. The rest of us need to cultivate them with mindfulness and attention. Sometimes those gifts are tangible, like the gorgeous handcrafted items I held in my hands as I left knitting group last night. Other times, the gifts are intangible but deeply felt, like the gifts of friendship and connection that I carried home in my heart.

The spoon-shape of the necklace brings to mind a story I first heard at a youth group meeting in high school. The story goes that, in hell, everyone sits at a table set with an incredible feast. Permanently attached to their hands is an impossibly long-handled spoon. All at the table are invited to eat to their hearts’ content – however, they find the spoon handles are so long that they can’t actually bring food to their mouths. So they sit at a feast, frustrated, starving, and unable to eat. In heaven, the story continues, the scene is set in exactly the same way: a table groaning under the weight of a sumptuous feast. Each person has a long-handled spoon attached to their hand. The difference: in heaven, the guests at the table use the spoons to feed each other. I love this metaphor, not so much as a story about heaven and hell but as a way to approach life today: be open to the opportunities to be fed by the generosity of others. At the same time, be as open to expressing your own heart through generosity toward others. That reciprocal flow of energy can, I believe, not only benefit the direct participants, but will also add to the measure of good in the world. Every time I wear my new necklace, I’ll be reminded of this and spurred to act accordingly!

 

The two pieces haven't been united yet, but here you have an idea (and can see the generous gifts from Anne and Anna)!

The two pieces haven’t been united yet, but here you have an idea what the final necklace will look like (and can see the generous gifts from Anne and Anna)! Trust me, the photo doesn’t do justice to the enamel-work.

 

 

 

 

 





Expectancy

12 12 2013

December always carries a sense of expectancy, of waiting with bated breath, for something magical or wondrous to occur.

For me, of course, the season of Advent and the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus is the traditional source of this sense of something about to happen. Some years, however, it is amplified by the anticipated arrival of new life – in 1987 my godson Nile was born on Christmas Eve, and this year my dear friends Sara and Molly are both due any minute.

The stories of my friendships with these three mothers, in some ways, tell the story of my life. Nile’s mom, C., was my comrade throughout graduate school; Sara was my student during the amazing first years of my career in Residence Life; and Molly was my peer, colleague, and collaborator in the time of hectic institutional change at the college. All three of them have impacted the person I am today in ways too numerous to list. And each has approached motherhood and childbirth differently. For someone who has never been a parent, the privilege to wait beside women I love and respect has been a gift.

C. told me the story of Nile’s conception, shared poems she wrote throughout her pregnancy (“I waited like an egg, already feeling the first inner stirrings”), read snippets of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” aloud as we sat in her trailer home, shivering in the cold of early winter. For C., pregnancy and birth were mystical and sacred processes, albeit natural. When Nile was born, he and I shared an immediate and profound adoration for one another. I learned second-hand the trials and tribulations of breast feeding while a Ph.D. candidate, the anguish of a baby suffering from a difficult to diagnose health problem; eventually, the horrible experience of a baby having surgery and a feeding tube inserted in his stomach. There were many, many moments of inexplicable joy, and some of sorrow, shared between us throughout Nile’s early years. Sadly, C. and I drifted apart, both of us caught up in careers and lives that left very little free time or leisure to visit.

When Sara was a student, we often stayed up late talking on the purple couch in my apartment – or on a midnight run to Perkins (seriously, who thought those were a good idea?). Sara was a student of amazing promise, yet always claimed she wasn’t. She said, often, “I just want to get married and have a passel of kids!” or “I know I’m meant to be a mom.” Sara was a Resident Assistant, probably the best one that ever worked for me. Sara was and is one of the most competent people I’ve ever met. After she graduated, Sara refused to let go of me. She taught me, by example, what it means to be a steadfast and loyal friend. The child we are so happily awaiting this week is number four for Sara – and she was so right – she was meant to be a mom! Pregnancy appears to strengthen Sara’s aura of competence and self-assurance. She has often told me that two days in the hospital are like a mini-resort vacation.

As an only child, Molly worried that being a mom wouldn’t come naturally to her. All of her women friends, including me, tried to reassure her that she would be great. Still, she doubted. Her first child, my goddaughter Kate, is adorable and smart and observant – just like her mom. Molly presents herself as pragmatic and analytical and a realist. And she is all of these. But her hidden trait, the thing you don’t realize until you know her well, is that Molly is all heart. A trait Kate also inherited (for a while, taking Kate out in public was an exercise in empathy – she saw/heard every child in tears wherever we were, and it distressed her terribly. “Baby crying”, she would say, with a tremble in her voice and a furrowed brow.)  “Sister Baby” as Kate calls her, has some pretty spectacular women in her life, eagerly awaiting her appearance.

Me, with Abby (Sara's) and holding Kate (Molly's), June 2013. Photo credit: Mike Beck

Me, with Abby (Sara’s) and holding Kate (Molly’s), June 2013. Photo credit: Mike Beck

Each of these friends has offered me different gifts: tough love, gentle support, unwavering loyalty. The women and mothers they are have been mirrors in which I have been able to view myself clearly, helping me to grow in so many ways. As each has accorded me the honor of being part of her children’s lives, I have had to strive to learn how to be my best self.

Approaching Christmas, we are often told to focus on the “reason for the season”. This year, in particular, I find myself thinking of Mary. Mary’s life and pregnancy, like those of the mothers I know, wasn’t easy. Nor was her childbirth guaranteed to be painless. Yet, she not only accepted but embraced motherhood, opening her life and the life of her child to be shared by us all, through many generations. I am trying not to focus on the material accoutrements of the holiday and, instead, to train my gaze upon a humble birth. I hope to keep my attitude toward this humble birth – toward all humble births – one of wonder, of gratitude and of joy.

Each night a child is born is a holy night
A time for singing
A time for wondering
A time for worshipping

No angels herald their beginnings
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show where to find
The babe that will save humankind

Yet each night a child is born is a holy night
Fathers and mothers—sitting beside their children’s cribs
Feel glory in the sight of new life beginning…

—Sofia Lyon Fahs

(Notes: An excerpt from this poem was used in Nile’s birth announcement. There are many other parents, mothers and fathers, to whom I am grateful for the incredible privilege of sharing their children’s lives – you, too, are in my heart this Advent season!)